Review: Child of God
PLOT: After losing his land to the bank, already-unhinged Lester Ballard retreats to the woods and hills of 1960's Tennessee where he proceeds to shed his last vestiges of civilized behavior and sanity.
REVIEW: I'll give a measure of credit to James Franco: he's not afraid to tackle the impossible. Last year he attempted to bring William Faulkner's internal novel AS I LAY DYING to the big screen with very mixed results, and now he's taken a crack at an even more impenetrable work of fiction, CHILD OF GOD, Cormac McCarthy's bleak tale of backwoods degradation and necrophilia. Bringing McCarthy effectively to the screen is hard enough work for the veteran filmmakers, let alone someone who has the same grasp on the nuances of filmmaking as your average film student. So I tip my hat to him. Can't exactly say I enjoyed the experience, though.
CHILD OF GOD is essentially a story-free journey into the ominous hill country of Tennessee, where a man named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) has recently cut his last ties to civilization and become a barely-human vagrant, prone to wandering aimlessly, hunting small animals, and sneering at whomever crosses his path. When we first meet him he's being forced off his own land, now owned by the bank, and threatening the auctioneer before being knocked out and arrested. Nobody really takes Lester as a serious threat; he's the town loony. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) regards him as a feral troublemaker but not necessarily as a dangerous individual. However, the further into the woods, and himself, Lester goes, the more real the threat is.
Like a handful of McCarthy's books, CHILD OF GOD is a tale of horror; one could take the basics of this story and make it a killer hillbilly B-movie, as Lester eventually becomes a rifle-toting prowler in the woods. But McCarthy's prose is so purposeful, so complex, and so willing to plumb the depths of the darkness of humanity, his spare plots are elevated into something resembling poetry. But when the work makes the transition to film, much of that haunting, lyrical beauty is lost. In the case of CHILD OF GOD, the film is basically just 90 minutes of Ballard walking around, mumbling to himself, and the book is anything but that. (Here's where I implore you to read the chilling novel; you won't soon forget it.)
If Franco does get one thing right, it's the casting his lead actor, Scott Haze, who is on screen almost the entire running time, baring every bit of his soul and body. To say the performance is vanity-free is to understate it; Haze commits completely to the half-mad character, sputtering, drooling, shrieking and everything in between, while Franco's camera captures every disgusting detail. (Franco even shows the man defecating on screen, isn't that something?) By the time Lester finds a dead body and brings it back to his shack in order to romance it, we've never wanted to leave someone's presence so strongly. There's a primitive wiliness to Lester that Haze gets across too; he may be closer to animal than man, but he can surely get out of a jam when he needs to. I've never seen the actor in anything else, but if you told me Franco cast an actual lunatic and put him in his film, I'd believe it.
Without such a stunningly bizarre turn at the center of his film, Franco would not have much of a leg to stand on. Frequently his movie is pitifully amateurish; he's the guy who thinks shooting a scene with a wobbly handheld camera automatically makes it "real," while unnecessary voice-overs pepper the proceedings intermittently with stories from locals telling us how strange Lester is. We actually can see that for ourselves, thanks. Once in a while a passage from McCarthy's book is displayed on screen, which only underlines Franco's pretentious reverence for the material, and his own adaptation of it. And frankly the movie simply grows redundant the longer it goes on. Seen Lester flop around the woods once, you've seen it a thousand times.
It's very possible that Franco is growing as a filmmaker - at the very least, he has an instinct for casting, and he doesn't shy away from taking chances, for what that's worth. But it's about time he dropped off his books and left the art student stuff behind him.